Across the world, for along as people have known flowers, they have attributed specific meanings to them. Roses of love, Forget Me Nots of memory, Poinsettias of Christmas, and so forth. The meanings have varied by culture and time, and, as with everything else, one must always be careful to specify where and when a particular image is associated with a particular meaning. Wedding dresses, for example, were not typically white in Europe before Queen Victoria had hers made, and if today they symbolize virginity, yesterday they may have been associated with burial shrouds. Likewise the color black, to us a symbol of death, was in Egypt a signifier of life, for it was the color of the mud left after the nile flood receded, leaving the land open for planting at last.
When I was first introduced to the concept of communicating complex messages through floral arrangements, I neglected to consider the highly contingent nature of symbolism, and, as with so many things culturally widespread in Britain but unknown on the Continent, ascribed it to everyone and sundry, neglecting differences of sex and social class. The floral language was popular among the people who dealt with bouquets, who could afford to send floral arrangements back and forth as they pleased, who had the time to arrange such things just so, who had the time to read the dictionaries that ascribed a meaning to each flower, who had the time to select just the right flower that they needed. I have been informed that the floral code, in its fullest expression, was practiced by only a few subcultures in its heyday.
Further complicating matters was the fact that every twit with a yen for flowers and a pen for paper seemed to be writing their own dictionary of the floral language, with quite a different set of meanings in one volume than another, and if you didn't have the same dictionary for the language as your friend then you might wind up communicating something you never intended to.
Imagine yourself sitting in a sunlit parlor, reading a letter whose green seal you have just broken open, in the company of your friends. In it, your dear Lady Asquith informs you that you and she will have to stop communicating by letter for a while, because her husband is growing suspicious. Thank goodness she finally got the hint and stopped strictly color-coding her letters, you think, but if Lord Asquith had been paying attention to the blue-sealed letters that were leaving his estate then he would have to be more than a little suspicious by now. It would be rather easy, you think, to simply meet Lady Asquith in person, and fondly kiss her on both cheeks, and never have Lord Asquith suspect a thing, because as far as you know he wouldn't dream of the affection of two women being anything but chaste. He's a bit of a romantic, that man, and tends to idolize purity. Never really touches his wife. If she never objects, well, he doesn't mind.
But if anyone besides Lord Asquith would suspect you two, having seen letters sealed in blue pass from one estate to the other, and knowing that there has been no young man on these grounds for the past few years (poor dear Arthur, he was always so kind, he was taken to the angels much too soon), then perhaps they would be able to put two and two together if you were taking yourself to Lady Asquith's parlor every other day. And you have, as it happens, taken yourself to the Lady Asquith's parlor quite enough times already, and there have, in fact, been a few people asking after the fact, wondering why you two are seen together so often, and to such queries Lady Asquith always responds that you are her backup, and never explains why she would need backup, but giggles behind a fan and leads you away, and while it is a most amusing in-joke it does not do to cause the kind of confusion that leads people to attempt to Investigate A Mystery.
(You're pretty sure that such investigations on your part ten years ago led to the divorce, which Mother never speaks of, nor ever speaks of her former Husband, and you're fairly certain that the whole matter became a scandal because the small revelations you recounted to your aunt were totally misconstrued by the rest of the extended family. Whatever the truth of the matter, your father departed from your mother on oddly genial terms, or at the very least he sent her a flower arrangement of forget-me-nots and white clover, and since then you have been particularly sensitive to the idea of people prying into other people's private affairs.)
There must be a more secure way to communicate than letters.
Floral arrangements. You keep meaning to immerse yourself in the Floral Code. It sounds so clever, doesn't it, to give someone a message that's hidden in plain sight? Anyone seeing it in passing wouldn't indentify all of the flowers in time, assuming they even knew the code, and undoubtedly Lord Asquith would not know it at all. His estate specializes in hedges.
You turn to Elizabeth, who engages herself with gardening more than anyone else you know, whom everyone else turns to when they need a nosegay for the ball, when their beloved geraniums are sickly. Elizabeth, the Rose of the South, as you call her, and she does not seem embarassed by the title. So when you raise the subject of the Floral Code, she looks up from her sketching, clearly interested. She glances at Veronica, who nods her head in the direction of your mother, who is sitting in the part of the parlor with the harpsichord, and Veronica puts a finger to her lips, Elizabeth likewise. They guessed your intentions before you could even explain yourself. Clever girls.
Elizabeth rises, and takes you by the hand, bidding you rise to follow her, not saying a word as she leads you into the garden. It is a magnificent garden, especially this time of year when the begonias are in bloom. Here, says Elizabeth, producing a small booklet from the folds of a sleeve. Your garden has everything we need.
Courtesy of Elizabeth, you think, but neglect to mention this as you are led along the winding paths. Little you know of the floral code, and yet Elizabeth seems to know the symbolism of every flower you pass by. All you desire is to send a message of love, secrecy, and meeting here at midnight. Elizabeth glances back at you, says nothing. She appears to be running something through her mind. Then she asks if she has your permission to select the flowers that she pleases. You say yes, yes, as long as it gets the point across.
And this what she selects: Clematis for poverty (You are poorer without Lady Asquith); White Clover which says 'I think of thee' (fair enough); Dill (Elizabeth thinks it looks nice for some reason); Edelweiss (where on earth did she get that, you wonder); Gardenia, for refinement (the Lady Asquith is so elegant); Iris, to indicate that the arrangement is a message; Rhododendron for being wary; Anemone to symbolize sickness (for you are sick without the Lady Asquith); Black-Eyed Susan to represent the golden summer; Jacob's ladder, to beckon your Lady Asquith come down here; and sprigs of Cypress, which Elizabeth refuses to explain. Last of all the night-blooming Convolvulus, twelve of them, to symbolize the hour of night.
The message, as Elizabeth explains, reads: I think of thee. Come down to me at midnight, elegant one, and be careful. I am sick for you.
The arrangement is made, placed in a vase, and Elizabeth rings the bell for the butler. She gives it to him, with explicit instructions that he should have it delivered to Lady Asquith at the Oakshotte Manor, by this evening.
And the remainder of the day passes. The sun sets and the moon rises, a half moon, balanced on the edge between this and that, between life and death, wake and sleep. Some call the full moon dangerous for leading people into lunacy, but it is the half-moon that always makes you shiver.
The moon rises. And rises. Not a breath of air in the trees. Not a sound upon the road, though you strain your ears to hear, as you sit at the open window.
It is too much, this evening. You have stayed up until midnight. If she is not here now, she will not be here. Perhaps she did not understand the message. Perhaps the bouquet was lost, and you will have to stick to letters after all.
Day by day you sit by the window, waiting for any sign of the Lady Asquith's approach. Your friends begin to mutter about lovesickness and foolish romance. They are cross with you. They worry that you will make your mother suspicious. They are your secret keepers, are they not? They have a responsibility to your secret, as well as their own. Veronica drags you away from the window, and whispers in your ear, Patience.
The moon wanes to a crescent. You have been staying up later and later each evening, long enough to see the moon rising later and later as it shrinks. You feel as though you are shrinking. What on earth is the matter with Lady Asquith? What on earth is the matter with the Oakshotte Manor? No one has heard a word out of the place for days. Not a letter, not a parcel, not a coachman has left the house.
Your mother is beginning to suspect you. Goodness, she says, the bags under your eyes. Goodness, she says, you sleep until noon these last few days. What is the matter with you? Oh I know. You are worried about your friend. She winks. Well, I can't blame you. The police should have called upon that place a while ago. Worry not, my daughter, I suspect you will see your dearest soon enough.
Does Mother know?
You dare not inquire further.
This night there will be no moon, and the darkness beneath the stars lays heavy upon the earth. There is little purpose in watching the road, only in gazing at the stars, whose constellations you have learned by heart. Draco hangs in the eastern sky, above the hills of the Oakshotte estate. That doesn't seem like a good sign. And -- you almost fancy that the dragon himself is breathing fire down to the earth, for there is some light in the hills, something interfering with your night vision, just a bit. An orange light.
It is fire.
And then you hear it, faintly in the darkness. Footfalls on the gravel path.
A whisper from below. Katrina. I am here. I will be with you in a moment. And before you can say anything else her footfalls go silent, and the small door on this side of the north wing creaks open. Now how on earth did anyone leave that --
Mother's the one who makes sure all the doors are locked at night. Has anything happened to her? You turn and rush out of your chambers, only to see Mother and the doorman leading Lady Asquith up the back staircase, straight towards you. Here you are my brave Esther, says Mother, your dearie duck has been waiting for you all this time. Thank goodness I don't have to fix up a separate suite for you on short notice. She winks, and leaves you two alone.
Mother knows. She must know.
Esther, the Lady Asquith, falls into your arms, and falls asleep there. You have to drag her to your bed and place her down gently and cover her with a blanket. That will be good enough for the night.
In the morning Esther does not appear to be overly embarrassed by how she ended her evening. She apologizes for failing to contact you properly in the same manner as you had contacted her, but her estate contained very few flowers, and Lord Asquith was now monitoring all correspondence out of the manor. But, he did not understand the language of flowers. The message came across clear. The deed was done. And you ask, deed? What deed? What on earth happened?
Well, says Esther, you should have known what you were suggesting if you claim to know the language of flowers. Dill, powerful against evil. Clematis, cunning and artifice. Edelweiss for courage. Rhododendron for danger. Anemone, meaning 'forsaken'. Black-Eyed Susan, symbol of justice. White clover, to think of thee. Sprigs of cypress, symbols of death. Jacob's ladder, which means 'come down to me'. Twelve night-blooming convolvula, as if to say 12 of night.
The message was clear: You are powerful against evil, and you can achieve justice, but you must be cunning and courageous, for your task is dangeorus. You must forsake all that you have. You must deal death. Then you must come down here at midnight.
I never meant to send such a message, you say. I would never dream of asking you to deal death. You know me. How did you manage to misinterpret such a careful arrangement? And Esther says, I interpreted the message perfectly according to the flower language guide in the Old Farmer's Almanac. And you think, oh, yes of course, she pays attention to that thing for some reason, possibly the only person this side of the pond who does so -- but wait. Haven't you seen such a book in the possession of Elizabeth?
You leave Esther to sleep through the morning a bit more, for the poor lady is exhausted from her journey, it seems. You go down to the parlor, where your friends have all arrived already, and there among them sits your mother, who is saying to Veronica, Goodness, you are certainly a dear friend to Mary Anne here, almost as much as my daughter is to Esther. Veronica and Mary Anne nod their heads.
You sit down in your usual seat, take up your embroidery, and sit there in silence for a while, casting a spell of apprehension about the room. Then you ask Elizabeth, why did you do it? Why did you use me to send a message suggesting murder?
And Elizabeth says, I saw the bruises on her upper arms one day. She refused to explain them. She wouldn't tell me what went on in her house either, but I had a good guess. She wouldn't tell me where the scars on her forearms came from. Her elbow-length gloves are magnificent, and excellent for hiding certain things. But I had seen the scars. I listen to the rumors. That Oakshotte Manor loses more servants than it gains. That Lord Asquith's first and second wife were last seen at his estate. That the police refuse to touch him because he's a favorite of the King. So, I decided to make an arrangement with one meaning that was public, and one that was very private. And I had been to Oakshotte Manor, in happier times, and seen its Lady's copy of the almanac. I knew Esther would have the proper dictionary for what I was trying to say. Easy enough, right?
And Mother sagely nods her head.
You turn to Mother and ask her, Why are you acting like this? Why are you so calm?
And mother says, well, my dear daughter, it is because you have not been the only one conversing with the Lady Asquith. Many is the time I have met her in town, and suggested that if you and her are such fast friends these days, she ought to at least stay here for a long while. She has always told me that it was impossible for one reason or another, until she finally hinted that Lord Asquith wasn't letting her leave the house. So I said to Elizabeth, well my girl, perhaps it is time to put your suggestion to work.
Everyone else in the room nods. It was a matter of time, says Charlotte. It was either her first or him first, and soon, once we knew about the bruises.
And you place your embroidery aside, stand, and demand to know why in the flying fuck you were excluded when it came to arranging this most pivotal event.
You speak too much, says a familiar voice behind you, and you whirl around to see Esther, holding a deep crimson rose. Perhaps I do as well. Neither of us has been as circumspect as we should, alas. How convenient that the house went with its lord, and all incriminating evidence as well. If the police come looking around here I can say with all honesty that I came looking for help at the nearest house.
You take the rose. I am so sorry. If I had bothered to investigate the matter, none of this would have happened. But what about the servants? How many of them escaped the flames?
Esther shakes her head. The Cook and the butler were the only servants left alive in the house, by the time I understood what was going on. The butler was the only one left by the time I gathered the courage to act.
Everyone in the room gasps.
As Katrina is disappointed with you all for failing to inform her of your intentions, so I am disappointed that your efforts to extricate me from the house were not more strenuous. Ah, but I never did bother to exlain what was happening to me, did I. I kept you all out of the loop as well, until it was almost too late. Let us be glad that the house had a ready supply of arsenic, and that I was able to convince my Lord to let me do the cooking. Let us be glad that the furnace was faulty on its own, and that Lord Asquith can be blamed for getting rid of the servants who knew how to use it safely. And let us be glad that your mother has relatives in Barbados, for I think we could all do with a long break from this place.
A LONG break from this place. Esther gives you a knowing look.
You shake your head. I will have to think about this. I feel used, led around, like...like a wife who is given no freedom. Like a prop in a stage play. Like a marionette. Of all people here I have been granted the least amount of trust. Esther, if you wish to call upon me I will be in my chambers. The rest of you may stay or go as you wish, but I will not speak to you further today.
You depart the parlor before anyone else can say a word.
You see, now, what comes of trying to communicate when one party is not on the same page as the other. You might set off an unfortunate chain of events.